For I-85 drivers, a toll lane — to go

Next summer, commuting will change for thousands of I-85 drivers in Gwinnett County.

For the first time in Georgia, an interstate lane will have a toll, and the computerized price will change moment by moment, rising when congestion in the main lanes rises.

It’s good news if you’re a solo driver willing to pay to get to an appointment a little faster.

But it’s bad news if you’re in a two-person car pool used to a free HOV lane, because you’ll be paying a toll, too.

In a couple of weeks, state Department of Transportation contractors intend to start closing parts of I-85 to construct an electronic toll in the HOV lane. The toll is to run from just south of Spaghetti Junction in DeKalb County to Old Peachtree Road in Gwinnett County.

If state officials have their way, it’s the first leg of a metrowide network of such lanes.

It is a huge innovation in transportation, one of just a handful of such projects nationwide. On the flip side of that coin, it’s an experiment. State officials readily admit they don’t know if it will work. And can drivers figure it out? The AJC got a look at the freshly designed road signs. Some of them may hinder more than help, judging by the reaction of drivers interviewed this week.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the DOT is holding events to launch the lane’s construction. A public meeting is from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Gwinnett Center.

HOV toll lanes — now called “express lanes” — have advocates. They marvel that even in metro Atlanta, even at rush hour, a driver who is willing to pay will be able to find free-flowing highway traffic.

“I think that’s pretty cool,” said Darryl Harden, a Norcross plumber who drives a lot for his work. “If I can get in that — hey, I’ll go for it.”

And the concept has detractors.

“The taxpayers have already paid for this” HOV lane, said Sabrina Smith, chairwoman of Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government. She was concerned that more tax dollars are being invested simply to force out taxpaying two-person car pools. “That’s what’s frustrating for people who play by the rules and try to do the right thing.”

Others note that the reliable traffic flow relies on keeping out people who can’t afford the toll.

Express lane drivers tend to have higher incomes than average, but advocates say the lanes are valuable for working-class parents late to pick up a child from day care.

The lanes may or may not make money. A traffic and revenue study done for the state predicts the lanes may bring in from $3 million to $7 million the first year, and several times more in years after that. But officials say the point is to create one place on the highways where rush-hour traffic is reliably mobile.

There are no reliable examples to show what exactly the effect on the regular lanes will be, experts at a conference here said earlier this year. On the one hand, the toll lane might move more cars, if the toll lane moves faster than the HOV lane. On the other hand, whenever government builds a new road project, people make trips they’ve been putting off, adding to the traffic.

One undeniable fact: Traffic on I-85 needs help.

The state says it’s on the way.

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Timeline to toll lane

Under construction: Now

Lane closures for construction: Starting in mid-September, crews will mostly close lanes on nights between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. and weekends. There will be no lane closures on Thanksgiving or Christmas weekends.

Customer service center up. Peach Pass applications accepted: Spring 2011

Open to traffic: Summer 2011

Sources: Georgia Department of Transportation and State Road and Tollway Authority

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How the lane works

Drivers must first apply for a Peach Pass account from the State Road and Tollway Authority. They’ll be able to do that next year. Then registered account holders will receive a transponder the size of a Band-Aid to stick in their car window, said a spokeswoman for SRTA.

Express lane drivers may enter and exit only at dashed lines on the road, not solid lines. There is no physical barrier between regular lanes and the toll lane, just painted lines.

People who enter the lane without being registered for an account will have a picture taken of their license plate, and the state will mail them a fine. There will be sensors along the way.

The State Road and Tollway Authority is still working out the fines with the State Patrol, according to SRTA spokeswoman Malika Reed Wilkins. Signs in the project plans warn of fines up to $150. Some violations could cost $25 plus the toll fee. Some violations where a trooper pulls over the driver could add up to more than $150 in fines, Wilkins said.

As congestion in the main lanes rises, the toll price rises. Signs along the way tell drivers the price tag at that moment. The toll price is intended to always stay high enough to keep the traffic count low and the flow at 45 mph or more.

Solo drivers and two-person car pools must pay to ride in the lane. Car pools of three or more, motorcycles, alternative fuel vehicles approved by the state, and transit vehicles may drive free, said DOT spokeswoman Karlene Barron. But they must register beforehand, she said.

The SRTA board, headed by the governor, will set the toll range. The SRTA estimates it may be between 10 cents and 90 cents per mile, depending on congestion.

Side note: All those sensors and your personal toll account? Yes, you are being tracked. Confidentially.

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The budget

Tax dollars are paying for the project, some borrowed, some in grants. A budget earlier this year called for $115 million in federal dollars, and $66.7 million in state money. By far the most expensive component of the project isn’t about tolling at all, but the purchase of commuter buses and park-and-ride lots. According to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, $97 million of the federal grants will go toward that.

● The toll road re-do: $52 million

● Xpress bus expansion: $121 million

● Creating a customer account center: $1.2 million

● Marketing, education and outreach: $4.2 million

● Performance monitoring $2.6 million

Sources: State Road and Tollway Authority and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (which runs Xpress commuter buses)

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Goodbye, HOV-2

About 18,000 vehicles a day use the HOV lane around Jimmy Carter Boulevard, according to the project’s traffic and revenue study. The vast majority of that HOV traffic, perhaps 75 percent, is two-person car pools. Kicking those cars out of the lane, unless the drivers pay, makes space for the solo toll-payers.

And those two-person car poolers are ticked off, mocking the notion that toll lanes provide another “option.”

“There is another option,” said Chris Dzikowski, a telecom manager from Gwinnett County who drives I-85 every day. “It’s called carpooling.”

Dzikowski sought a car pool companion two years ago through the Clean Air Campaign. When the project goes into place, he thinks it may be better to take U.S. 29, thus adding to the congestion there. Should his car pool break up, he doesn’t know whether he would seek another.

During rush hour, up to 15 percent of the current HOV traffic may be solo motorists driving in the HOV lane illegally. Since the toll project provides technology for nabbing them and making them pay, some of them may be persuaded to get out.

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Road bling

The construction project is under contract. Here’s some of what the overall project will buy:

● 133,948 feet of fiber-optic cable

● 12,551 raised pavement markers

● 238,516 feet of 8-inch-wide thermoplastic white road stripes

● 100 tons of mulch

● 36 new Xpress buses for five new routes

● Four new Xpress bus lots with a total of 2,952 spaces

Source: Project design plans